Memorandum by the Director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs (Butterworth) to the Secretary of State

Subject: British Attitude With Respect to Aerial Bombardment of Shanghai and Action by the Chinese Government to Close the Chinese Ports Now Under Communist Control.

Attached hereto are copies of two communications which the British Embassy has informally supplied the Department.

Tab A is a summary of Mr. Bevin’s protest to the Chinese Ambassador at London on June 21, 1949 in connection with the bombing in Shanghai of the British ship Anchises by Chinese Government planes. Mr. Bevin’s protest was, as will be noted, couched in strong terms.

Tab B outlines the British reply to the Chinese Government note-respecting the closing of Chinese ports now under Chinese Communist control. It may be noted that, whereas our reply (Tab C)27 merely states conditions under which, in our view, the closing of ports in question could be effected legally, the British reply goes much further in that it states (1) that the establishment of a blockade amounts to an assertion of belligerent rights, adding that no indication has been received that the Chinese National Government recognizes or is about to recognize the Chinese Communists as having belligerent status; (2) that according to information available to the British Government the Chinese Government does not have at its disposal armed forces to en able it to exercise a real and effective blockade and (3) that the British Government, on the basis of information presently available to it, is not prepared to respect the blockade.

[Annex 1—Tab A]

Statement by the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Bevin)28

I summoned the Chinese Ambassador on June 21st and told him that His Majesty’s Government were greatly concerned at the bombing [Page 1111]of the Anchises. We had received no notice of Chinese intentions yet one of our merchant ships had been interfered with in an unwarrantable fashion on her peaceful course and members of her crew had suffered injury. The Chinese Government had never claimed belligerent rights. In default of such a claim we could recognize no blockade. No state of war existed but in any event, the use of aircraft to dive-bomb an unarmed ship we regarded as intolerable. It amounted to an unfriendly act. I trusted that full compensation would be immediately forthcoming.

2. The Ambassador explained that he knew nothing until he read the news this morning whereupon he had immediately telegraphed to his Government. He had no reply as yet and could only offer his sincere personal apologies.

3. I thanked the Ambassador but left him in no doubt that the Cabinet felt most incensed about this action of the Chinese Air Force. I asked him to impress upon his Government that I hoped for an immediate expression of regret and agreement to pay compensation in full. A quick and generous gesture was needed to make amends.

[Annex 2—Tab B]

Outline of British Response to Chinese Note 29

I agree that we should act on similar lines to the Americans. I would not however wish to follow them by specifically expressing sympathy.

2. Communication which Mr. Coghill30 makes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be on the following lines:-

It would begin by quoting Chinese communication and go on to state that this appears to H.M.G. to be a Proclamation of Blockade. In the opinion of H.M.G. in the U.K. in cases where hostilities are in progress between the lawful government of a country and insurgent forces, the proclamation of a blockade by the lawful government amounts to an assertion of belligerent rights which should be recognized by outside countries with the further consequence that such rights are thus automatically conferred upon the insurgent party. H.M.G. have received no indication from the Chinese Nationalist Government that they recognize, or are about to recognize, the Chinese Communists as having belligerent status.

3. In the opinion of H.M.G. moreover a mere decree of a lawful government purporting to close ports occupied by insurgents without the maintenance of a real and effective blockade can not be regarded as valid inasmuch as it constitutes an attempt to secure the rights of war without regard to the conditions which International Law attached [Page 1112]to their exercise, and that such a decree can not therefore be recognized as resulting in a blockade in the sense of International Law. According to the information available to H.M.G. the Chinese National Government have not at their disposal armed forces which will enable them to exercise a real and effective blockade over the territorial waters and ports in question. In particular, the Ports of Tientsin and Chinwangtao have been in the hands of the Chinese Communists since January 1949 and December 1948 respectively.

4. In view of the above considerations, H.M.G. cannot accept the announcement referred to above as a valid proclamation of blockade in International Law and, on the information at present available to them, they are not prepared to respect it.

5. Mr. Coghill will be instructed to concert action with his U.S. colleague.

  1. See telegram telCan No. 384, June 24, 8 p. m., p. 1104.
  2. Text received from the British Embassy.
  3. Text received from the British Embassy.
  4. John P. Coghill, British Consular officer attached to the British Embassy in China at Nanking, at this time on duty near the Chinese Government at Canton.